The six-time Super Bowl champion has a choice that his black teammates over the years haven’t been afforded
By Martenzie Johnson
On Wednesday morning, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, calling in from the rented mansion of former Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter, sat for a wide-ranging interviewwith shock jock Howard Stern. The pair spoke for two hours about Brady’s reasoning for leaving his former team, the New England Patriots, his relationship with former head coach Bill Belichick and the strain his job put on his marriage to former model Gisele Bündchen.
But early in the interview, when Brady was discussing how he managed dealing with and trusting unmotivated and apathetic teammates, Stern asked if he ever felt “guilty” or “self-consciousness” about having to be a cantankerous leader of a majority-black roster while being a white man.
Brady, clearly caught off guard by the question, responded, “Never. I never saw race. I think sports transcends race, it transcends wealth, it transcends all that. You get to know and appreciate what someone else may bring. When you’re in a locker room with 50 guys, you don’t think about race … because you’re all the same at that point.
“White, black, whatever it is, you figure out how to get along.”
Whatever one might think about Brady’s idea of racial harmony, based on his comments, it’s clear he possesses a privilege unique to a successful, famous white man. The six-time Super Bowl champion, who has made more than $200 million in his career (not including the $50 million contract he recently signed with the Buccaneers), can choose to not see race, something his black teammates over the last 20 years haven’t been afforded.
Race is everywhere in America. To choose to not see it might sound praiseworthy. But it is also a conscious decision to ignore the unpleasantness of racism and discrimination, not to mention acknowledge each other’s different backgrounds.
Colorblindness erases the experiences of the hundreds of black teammates Brady’s had over the years. Saying you “don’t see color” is a signal to society that 1) you’re a different white person from those slavery-era or Jim Crow white people, and 2) you couldn’t be racist because you don’t even think about it. But former teammates of Brady’s, such as James White, Mohamed Sanu and Devin McCourty, can’t wave a wand and suddenly have 400 years of African American history vanish because it helps their white co-workers sleep better at night.
Nearly every black player or coach whom Brady has come across since being selected 199th overall in the 2000 draft has experienced or knows someone who has experienced police violence, environmental racism, disenfranchisement, redlining, prison sentencing disparity or prejudice in the workplace. Former Patriot Jacoby Brissett, in 2016, became the first African American to start at quarterback for New England. Did Brissett look like Brian Hoyer to Brady?
Race, not colorblindness, is the story of the NFL. The conference Brady used to play in, the AFC, was once the American Football League. In the first half of the 20th century, the NFL had gentleman’s agreements and racial quotas that forbade or limited the number of African Americans in the league. The AFL had no such reservations and thus could choose from the best black athletes in the country. The NFL eventually merged with the AFL.
An example of Brady publicly acknowledging social issues revolves around the treatment of Colin Kaepernick and the protests of fellow NFL players. Brady called Kaepernick a “damn good quarterback” who is “qualified” to play in the league, and said he’s always admired the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. He also told Boston radio station WEEI that he has “no idea if [Kaepernick’s] being blackballed” by the league.
In a 2018 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Brady said he respected players kneeling during the national anthem because the actions prompted “a lot of good, healthy conversations” in the Patriots’ locker room. It is helpful to have those conversations if you see race.
Brady’s privilege isn’t restricted to just skin color. In the Stern interview, Brady also expounded on his decadeslong friendship with President Donald Trump. Brady told Stern that he continues to be friends with Trump, whom he has known since 2001 and whose Make America Great Again campaign cap Brady displayed in his locker in 2015, because “political support is totally different than the support of a friend.”
White privilege allows Brady to only see Trump as a friend, not a politician, even while many African Americans in this country see Trump as the man who called African nations “s—hole countries,” claimed that the first black president was born in Kenya and advocated for the death penalty for the now-exonerated Central Park Five. A collection of Brady’s black teammates skipped the post-Super Bowl White House visit in 2017 due to Trump’s presence. Running back LeGarrette Blount didn’t attend, he said, because “I just don’t feel welcome in that house.” (Brady also didn’t attend for family reasons.) Five months later, Trump called black NFL players “son[s] of a bitch” for kneeling for the national anthem in protest of police violence and racial inequality. Brady called Trump’s comments “divisive.”
Some white people avoid talking about or refuse to see race because it makes them uncomfortable or it might force them to atone for the sins of their ancestors. Researchers at the University of Kansas, University of Wyoming and University of Washington call the tactic “color-evasiveness” rather than “colorblindness” because those purveyors are choosing to not see race rather than being unable to see race.
All eyes are on Tampa Bay’s new quarterback, and its diverse coaching staff.
By Domonique Foxworth
Bruce Arians is the reason black folks should root for Tom Brady, who officially signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday.
Maybe you can’t stand the idea of Brady hoisting the Lombardi trophy for the seventh time in February. But that would be a small price to pay if it means Tampa Bay’s coach also gets the title of Super Bowl champion head coach.
Like Andy Reid, who finally won his first Super Bowl title as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs last season, Arians is a beloved coach leaguewide. Arians, 67, is known for his Kangol hats and aggressive offensive style characterized by his slogan “no risk it, no biscuit.” But that’s not the reason I am an Arians fan.
Arians’ Tampa Bay staff has 11 black coaches and two female coaches. The coordinators of all three phases of the game are black: Keith Armstrong (special teams), Todd Bowles (defense) and Byron Leftwich (offense). Harold Goodwin, the run-game coordinator and assistant head coach, is also black.
“I think it’s good for the game,” Arians told NFL.com in September. “I just saw the inequality in it and tried to do something about it.”
The women on his staff, Lori Locust, the assistant defensive line coach, and Maral Javadifar, assistant strength and conditioning coach, aren’t the first women Arians has hired. Back in 2015, when Arians was the Arizona Cardinals head coach, he hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for training camp, making her the NFL’s first female coach.
Arians, who has been passed over for head coaching opportunities that he thought he deserved, knows biases play a role in the hiring process.
“I guess that’s part of it too,” he said, “to give people of quality opportunity. Regardless of gender or race.”
Arians grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where his closest friends were black and race relations were anything but harmonious. He went on to play quarterback at Virginia Tech in the 1970s and became the first white player to have a black roommate. (That roommate was James Barber, father of Tiki and Ronde Barber.) Running the wishbone offense as a senior, Arians ran for 11 touchdowns, a school record until 2016.
He has gone on to a successful NFL coaching career during which he has been named AP coach of the year twice and won two Super Bowls as an assistant. He is considered a “quarterback whisperer” because of the success he’s had with big names, including Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, to name a few.
Leftwich, another former quarterback for Arians, is in a particularly important role, seeing as he is the offensive coordinator and playcaller. Arians has been an offensive playcaller for most of his long career, but decided to hand the responsibility over to Leftwich last season (1) because Leftwich is qualified and (2) to remove any excuses for Leftwich’s potential employers. Arians hired Leftwich into the position that most commonly leads to a head coaching job in the NFL and is rarely held by black coaches.
This season, Arians will trust him with the greatest of all time.
The success Arians and the Buccaneers could have with Brady won’t solve the issues of diversity on NFL coaching staffs. But it would shine a little light on one of the most diverse staffs in football. It would also give us all the opportunity to celebrate Bruce Arians, the social justice warrior.
Some supporters of the controversial quarterback criticize others as traitors or sellouts, a tactic that goes back to Du Bois and Malcolm X
By Michael A. Fletcher
How did Colin Kaepernick become a litmus test for authentic blackness?Some of Kaepernick’s supporters have denounced people who disagree with aspects of his protest as racial traitors. The repeated attacks formed a disturbing subplot to the Kaepernick saga not long after he began kneeling during the national anthem to call urgent attention to police brutality and racial inequality. The discord has arisen repeatedly as Kaepernick’s three-year exile from the NFL increasingly looks like it will be permanent.
The quarterback’s closest backers have suggested that they feel betrayed by anyone who partners with the league they accuse of blackballing him — even if those partners share his goals. Ironically, even as Kaepernick remains sidelined, legions of black NFL fans have been tuning in to watch a new generation of black quarterbacks lead a resurgence of interest in the NFL. But that has not stopped Kaepernick’s backers from firing rhetorical salvos at African Americans they see as lending comfort to the NFL.
The tension burst into view before the start of the current football season when Kaepernick supporters called out hip-hop mogul Jay-Z after his company, Roc Nation, signed a deal to advise the NFL on social justice and entertainment projects, including next month’s Super Bowl halftime show.
Jay-Z’s past support of Kaepernick and his long history of using his money and cultural cachet to promote social justice hardly seemed to matter to his critics. Not long after the deal was announced, for instance, the hashtag #JayZSellout was trending on Black Twitter.
Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s closest friends, was no kinder in 2018 when he denounced Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a leader of the Players Coalition, as a “neo-colonialist” after the NFL announced an $89 million pledge to the coalition to promote social justice advocacy and programs.
Similar views were echoed in a torrent of social media posts directed at ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports in November. Both had criticized Kaepernick for turning his back on an NFL-arranged workout that was billed as an opportunity for him to get back into the league. Many of the critics pointedly questioned the racial loyalty of the two prominent black commentators.
Racial authenticity is often invoked to simultaneously raise the stakes in a dispute and shut it down. “To use race is also a form of coercion,” essayist and cultural critic Darryl Pinckney said in an email. “It says, ‘My argument is unanswerable because it comes from the moral high ground of my inherited history’.”
That can be true even when the parties on either side of a disagreement share the same history — and the same goals. All of that is intensified by the hothouse of social media, where many of these arguments play out. People are “canceled” all the time, mainly for being willing to compromise or otherwise demonstrating their impurity. Nuance or context is often taken for weakness on those platforms.
“I think it is very unfortunate that people choose to engage like that around Kaepernick, because everyone is trying to pursue their own path of activism,” said Samuel T. Livingston, director of the African American Studies Program at Morehouse College. “There is no one way to engage in that activism. There is no one way to be black or to be black and an activist.”
The most visible opposition to Kaepernick’s protest has come from prominent white people, including President Donald Trump and Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Polls have shown that while most black NFL fans hold a favorable view of Kaepernick, the reverse is true for white fans. All of that has added to the racial cast of the debate surrounding Kaepernick, leading some of his supporters to contend that if you in any way oppose him, or his tactics, you are lending credence to his (mostly white) detractors.
After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would not tolerate players on his team protesting during the national anthem, black quarterback Dak Prescott said he was unbothered. “We know about social injustice,” he told reporters. “I’m up for taking the next step, whatever that step might be, for action.”
For that, Prescott was pilloried — often in racial terms. “When Jerry Jones, who owns America’s team,” drew a line in the sand, “Dak Prescott is out here basically saying he’s happy being a lemonade serving house negro,” tweeted Shadow League columnist Carron J. Phillips.
The impulse for ideological purity and lining up behind a perceived leader is not unique to African Americans, nor does it come into play only around racial issues.
Some fervent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders say “Bernie or bust,” meaning they are not sure they will back the 2020 Democratic nominee if Sanders is not on the ballot. On the flip side, for many years, some conservative Republicans derided moderates in their party as RINOS — Republican in Name Only.
In some ways, the on-and-off friction over Kaepernick among black people is as old as black activism itself. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said black Americans have tended toward three basic responses to their circumstances in America: revolt and revenge, an attempt to adjust to the will of the majority, and a focused effort at self-development.
Over the decades, many have viewed “revolt and revenge” as the most authentically black, even if elements of all three responses might be necessary to achieve lasting progress. That may be why the poet Amari Baraka once disparaged writer and playwright James Baldwin for being popular among white liberals. Or why Malcolm X called the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Jackie Robinson “Uncle Toms” for, one way or another, compromising with white people.
Sometimes, the insults become circular. Du Bois himself was called an Uncle Tom by Marcus Garvey, who did not like interracial coalitions and integration. Then, Garvey was deemed a sellout — and much worse — for his many statements supporting the racist rhetoric of white supremacists, and for collaborating with the murderous Ku Klux Klan. Garvey, who thought returning to Africa was the best hope for African Americans, reasoned that he and the Klan shared a goal: racial separation.
Similarly, Marshall, who had been criticized by Malcolm X, used a similar tack in criticizing Nat King Cole. After the celebrated singer performed in front of a segregated audience in Alabama, Marshall, then a crusading civil rights lawyer, called him a racial traitor. “[All] Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo,” Marshall said.
Until recently, no one would have guessed that Kaepernick would be seen as the test of black authenticity. He is the child of a white mother and black father, who grew up with adoptive white parents in the small city of Turlock in Central California. His political awakening began when he joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity while he was a star quarterback at the University of Nevada. But that did not result in any overt activism for years. An outstanding and curious student, he read black history and sought out mentors, but he did not emerge as an activist until a rash of highly-publicized police shootings of black men led him to begin his protest in 2016.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said then. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
He has rarely spoken publicly during his exile from football. While he has millions of social media followers, he uses those platforms mainly to echo posts from his tight circle of supporters, to promote Nike products he is paid to endorse and to update people on how long he has been kept off NFL gridirons.
Much of his activism is achieved through symbols, and many of them are of what Du Bois would call the “revolt and revenge” ilk that contribute to the idea that Kaepernick somehow represents authentic blackness. There are shots of his billowing Afro, photo shoots evocative of 1960s black activists, and provocative T-shirts, such as the one bearing the name of the defiant (and fictional) slave Kunta Kinte that he wore to his abortive NFL tryout.
There can be little argument that Kaepernick’s stance has transformed him into a cultural force. If Kaepernick were still playing football, who would care when he was spotted in the stands at the US Open? Would it make news if he objected to the use of the original American flag on a pair of sneakers designed by Nike, the sporting goods behemoth he endorses? Or would his newly released, $110 Nike “True to 7” sneakers sell out in just hours? Certainly, there would not have be a dozen children’s bookswritten about him if he were still playing.“The Kaepernick dilemma is the black American dilemma in a nutshell: Black folk are outraged by the manifest mistreatment of a man who as a result of his principled stance has become an icon mentioned in league with some of our most noteworthy figures of the past.” — Michael Eric Dyson, social critic and Georgetown University professor
Yet, as uncomfortable as Kaepernick’s growing status as an icon of protest may be for the NFL, it is also true that the league has enjoyed a period of renewed prosperity since he has been sidelined. Led by the play of several top black quarterbacks, the NFL is enjoying a surge of popularity this season, even as one of its best-known black quarterbacks, Kaepernick, remains unsigned. Television ratings are up, and interest in the game — including from African Americans, the league’s most ardent fans — is high. His former team, the San Francisco 49ers, is returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since he took them there in 2013. Meanwhile, the sideline protests launched by Kaepernick were carried on by just two or three players this season.
Although some African Americans leaders called for a boycott of the NFL in the wake of the sidelining of Kaepernick, it seems like that did not happen. A poll by The Undefeated/Survey Monkey poll taken before last season’s Super Bowl found that a higher percentage of white fans than black fans said they were watching less football than the previous season (the poll did not pinpoint why). The survey found that 42% of white fans and 30% of black fans said they were watching less football than in previous seasons last year, and 13% of white people and 25% of black people said they were actually watching more football than in previous seasons.
“It remains true that the NFL is a great unifier for American sports fans, and the story lines just keep on coming,” said Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “It is hard to measure the effect of the debate over Kaepernick. For every person who says his actions were virtuous or unpatriotic, there seems to be many more people who are just going to watch their teams.”
Many African Americans are no doubt angry about what they see as the blackballing of a figure who risked his career to speak out for racial justice. But while black fans may be with Kaep, apparently few have gone as far as abandoning the NFL to show it. And no one is questioning anyone’s racial authenticity because they are interested in seeing Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson perform on the field.
“The Kaepernick dilemma is the black American dilemma in a nutshell: Black folk are outraged by the manifest mistreatment of a man who as a result of his principled stance has become an icon mentioned in league with some of our most noteworthy figures of the past,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a social critic and Georgetown University professor. “Black folk wisely protest the administration of the Kaepernick case but affirm the value of the NFL — which has been horrible to a black man like Kaep, but has provided opportunity to black men by the thousands.”
None of that has diminished Kaepernick’s impact. His activism has undoubtedly raised awareness of issues civil rights leaders work on daily, even if it at times has caused dissension.
“I have a lot of respect for how he has used the platform that he has to model what change looks like,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights group. “His cultural advocacy has forced people to reckon with something they didn’t want to reckon with. What he has done has been a tremendous help to those of us who are working to kick out district attorneys who don’t value black lives. To change laws around money bail. To expose issues of policing and mass incarceration in deep ways. He has provided an on-ramp for people to have these conversations, to debate, to feel uncomfortable.”
Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.
Next up are some of the best black quarterbacks who are taking over the college game and may become the next NFL stars.
KELLY BRYANT, SENIOR, MISSOURI
After becoming a starter at Clemson, Kelly Bryant decided to take his career to Columbia, Missouri, where he became the man for the Missouri Tigers. Bryant’s season was slightly hampered by nagging injuries but he still managed to throw for 15 touchdowns and 2,215 yards in 2019. The dual-threat talent was able to compile a 138.6 passer rating and 62% completion rate.
JUSTIN FIELDS, SOPHOMORE, OHIO STATE
Ohio State Buckeye Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist as a true sophomore. The Georgia transfer left for Ohio State and had a dynamic first season for the Buckeyes. He threw for 2,953 yards and 40 touchdowns while only throwing one interception this season. Fields ranks in the top five of FBS quarterbacks in passing efficiency and passing touchdowns. He’s also rushed for nearly 500 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Fields will help lead Ohio State against Clemson in one of the college football playoff semifinals.
TYLER HUNTLEY, SENIOR, UTAH
Tyler Huntley of Utah is second in FBS in completion percentage (73.7%) and ranks in the top 10 in the FBS in both yards per completion and passing efficiency. He has thrown for 2,966 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season and ended his 2019 campaign with a 181.8 passer rating. Huntley also ranks in the top 25 of FBS quarterbacks in passing yards. He led the Utah Utes to an 11-win season and will looks to cap off his career against the Texas Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
JALEN HURTS, SENIOR, OKLAHOMA
Jalen Hurts’ historic journey in college football culminated in a stellar 2019 season that resulted in him becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Oklahoma quarterback finished the regular season first in the FBS in passing yards per completion, third in passing efficiency, fourth in completion percentage and sixth in passing yards. Hurts threw for 3,634 passing yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 71.8% of his passes. He also ran for more than 1, 200 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior campaign. Hurts led Alabama to a national title while he was the quarterback for the Crimson Tide in 2017.
KELLEN MOND, JUNIOR, TEXAS A&M
Kellen Mond will lead Texas A&M into a showdown with the Oklahoma State Bulldogs in the Texas Bowl. After a stellar career for the Aggies, Mond finished the 2019 season with 2,802 yards passing and 19 touchdowns. He accumulated a 131.3 passer rating and completed 61.3% of his passes for the Aggies.
JAMIE NEWMAN, JUNIOR, WAKE FOREST
Jamie Newman led the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to an 8-4 record this season and a matchup with Michigan State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The dual-threat quarterback passed for 2,693 yards in 2019 with 23 touchdown passes. Newman finished in the top 30 of all FBS quarterbacks in passing touchdowns and completed 62.3% of his passes. He ended the regular season with a 146.7 passer rating while rushing for close to 500 yards.
BRYCE PERKINS, SENIOR, VIRGINIA
Bryce Perkins ranks in the top 20 of FBS quarterbacks in passing yards. He has thrown for 3,215 yards in 2019 while connecting on 18 passing touchdowns. Perkins finished the season completing 64% of his passes and accumulating a 131.5 passer rating. He rushed for close to 750 yards with 11 rushing touchdowns. He helped lead the Virginia Cavaliers to the ACC title game this season and will hope to lead UVA to a win in the Capital One Orange Bowl against Florida.
KHALIL TATE, SENIOR, ARIZONA
Khalil Tate, the dual-threat quarterback for Arizona, threw for more than 1,500 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2017. This season, Tate ended the year throwing for 1,954 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Wildcats quarterback also rushed for just over 400 yards and completed 60% of his passes.
Donovan Dooley is a Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.
With last Friday’s big announcement that Colin Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reed formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, settled their collusion grievance case against the NFL without having to go the trial says a lot about both sides.
Clearly Kaepernick was facing the biggest foe of his career with his unwillingness to back down from kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. Kaepernick believed that his social activism lead to the NFL owners colluding to keep him unemployed because of his political stance, that being despite repeatedly attempting to convince the public that he just wasn’t good enough anymore to play quarterback.
Kaepernick’s case was expected to go to a full hearing sometime later this year, with the NFL facing the possibility of massive embarrassment and financial liability if it lost. It came to no big surprise that the league clearly needed an exit strategy to prevent further damaging their carefully guarded image, which has already taken a considerable hit in the area of race, and in health and safety for it’s players, that they would be extremely concerned about any additional future exposure.
The NFL is the most powerful sports conglomerate in the world with virtually inexhaustible financial resources. They have some of the best lawyers. For Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 billionaire owners he works for this settlement is a bad look for the league’s image, which clearly wanted to move beyond the damaging Kaepernick story.
I believe for Kaepernick to have settled with the NFL points to financial compensation in a substantial way. With that being said, clearly he came out of this battle as a big winner and the NFL a wounded loser.
Some, like Chris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman, know the problem and fight for clarity and balance
By William C. Rhodes
“It just looks different: He stands back there, he stands tall, he’s looking downfield and it’s just a different way to play the position than the guys who are coming in now.”
— Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck describing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
For all the talk about an evolution of the black quarterback, the position that needs the most change might be the broadcast booth.
That’s where African-American quarterbacks are still described more for their physicality than intellect. They are rarely called “brilliant” or “cerebral” and more routinely lauded for an array of “athletic” gifts.
They are doubted.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he frequently heard the coded language this season from some reporters when they asked questions about the play of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“ ‘Is his style of play sustainable? Can you win with this style of play?’ ” Harbaugh said recently, reflecting on the type of questions he was asked. Jackson saved the Ravens’ season with an improvised style of play that combined dynamic running and timely passing. The day we spoke, Jackson had outdueled Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who threw three interceptions that day. There was more talk about everything Mayfield had done well and concern about whether the Ravens could win with Jackson’s style of play.
“I’m tired of the coded language,” Harbaugh said, leaving it at that.
TONY DUNGY HAS SEEN IT ALL AS PLAYER, COACH, ANNOUNCER
In the old days, coded language wasn’t so coded. Black quarterbacks were quizzed about their inability to read defenses. Their failures were attributed to being too eager to escape the pocket or being confused by sophisticated defenses. “Now it’s, ‘He can’t throw from the pocket.’ That’s the new way of saying it,” Tony Dungy said.
Dungy was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota. He went undrafted and, while Canada was an option, he decided to play in the NFL as a defensive back.
After being passed over several times for a head-coaching job, Dungy was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996; in 2007, as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, he became the first African-American to win a Super Bowl title.
As a studio host at NBC Sunday Night Football, Dungy has listened carefully to the language used to describe the play of black quarterbacks and how that language feeds into larger, age-old stereotypes.
“For a long time, we had a stereotype of what a quarterback was, and if you didn’t fit that they said, ‘This guy, he can’t be an NFL quarterback.’ It’s different now, new words and new terms. It’s a little different now, when you hear, ‘Oh, Lamar Jackson, he can’t survive running like that.’ ”
Dungy has watched the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck play since he entered the league. Luck has a physical, freewheeling style of play, replete with running around, diving, not sliding. “Luck plays a lot like the stereotypical black quarterback, but they aren’t saying that,” Dungy said. “No one says, ‘Oh, he’s not going to survive.’ As soon as Lamar Jackson does it and doesn’t run out of bounds, they say, ‘Oh, he’s not going to survive.’ ”
MAHOMES CHANGING THE GAME IN SEVERAL WAYS
Patrick Mahomes, who has led Kansas City to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, poses a dilemma for the established order. Mahomes has universally been embraced this season as a harbinger of a new breed of field generals. This new breed demands new nomenclature and an enthusiastic embrace that broadcasters have been reluctant to offer.
“They don’t really know what to do with him,” Dungy said, referring to Mahomes. “He does everything that the basic, standard quarterback can do, and then he’s got this extra flair that nobody else can do. They can’t say he can’t throw from the pocket, because he does. They can’t say he doesn’t read defenses and doesn’t process the game, because he’s one of the best already in his second year.
“So they really don’t know what to say about him.”
Beginning in Week 10 of the season, Dungy began to speak of Mahomes’ intangibles as a way to counter what he saw as too great a concentration on his physical gifts.
“They say, ‘Look at how he throws across his body, look at that left-handed throw, look at that 50-yard pass,’ ” Dungy said. “You know what impresses me about Patrick Mahomes? He understands the game better than any 23-year-old I’ve ever seen. Nobody wants to say that. All the focus is on how he’s so gifted, his arm is so strong, he’s so accurate.
“He is all of that,” Dungy said, “but they really don’t want to say, ‘You know, this guy may be pretty brilliant.’ ”
Dungy coached Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and heard how Manning was described in euphoric terms virtually from the time he entered the league.
“They said he’s so mature, he’s this, he’s that. He studies,” Dungy recalled. “How much have you heard anyone say anything about Mahomes studying? I promise you, he does. He puts the time in.”
The rise of black quarterbacks may, for some, seem like a threat to the existing order, to everything an older generation once knew. Perhaps the role of some broadcasters is to provide reassurance that the old days are still here.
“White quarterbacks tend to be intelligent and give great effort. If a white quarterback succeeds, it’s because of something they controlled and worked hard at; if a black quarterback succeeds, it’s because of something that was innate.”
“There are so many studies that prove it; every single published piece of research finds the exact same thing,” he said. “It’s always a brain versus brawn dichotomy.”
What many of us find amazing is that after all these decades, the stereotypes, and the underlying racism, persist.
Ferrucci said he watched hours upon hours of broadcasts and pored over countless studies on the subject and conducted studies of his own. “There are so many studies that prove it; every single published piece of research finds the exact same thing,” he said. “It’s always a brain versus brawn dichotomy. We found that broadcasters and journalists do stereotype and use coded language to talk about quarterbacks; people also stereotype them. The coded language has an effect.”
As wave upon wave of dynamic young black quarterbacks enter the NFL — Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray just declared for the draft — the nomenclature used to describe their play will have to change. The virtually all-white fraternity of play-by-play announcers will have to change as well.
Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson, one of the few black play-by-play voices at the network level, says he makes a point of using words such as “genius” and “brilliant” when describing the play of black college quarterbacks.
Fox analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said he has heard the vocabulary around black quarterbacks — including his own — change. Aikman believes the perspective about “running quarterbacks” has changed.
“There was a time if you said, ‘This guy’s an athletic quarterback,’ it carried a negative connotation because what it implied was that he couldn’t throw from the pocket,” Aikman told me during a recent conference call. “Now if you say this guy’s a pocket passer, it almost seems that now carries a negative connotation.”
Thanks to a long line of quarterbacks, from Marlin Briscoe to Randall Cunningham to Warren Moon to Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, so-called “athleticism” at quarterback is now the norm. “I don’t think any longer when you say, ‘Wow, this guy’s really athletic,’ I don’t think people say, ‘Oh, he can’t throw.’ ” Aikman said. “It doesn’t mean any of that, it just means he can move around.”
Aikman said he took pains to avoid using the word “athletic” in the past “because people immediately assume that this is what I’m implying.”
“I don’t feel that way anymore,” Aikman said. “I don’t feel restricted in any way in saying that, because I think that the position has changed. Teams at one time wanted the pocket passer, and I still believe that there is a place for the pocket passer. But you talk to the people around the league, they want the passer, but they also want the guy who can create.”
CRIS COLLINSWORTH HAS SEEN STEREOTYPES AT WORK
Broadcasters have to be aware of how their words create images and paint pictures, how they can break down stereotypes or perpetuate them. They help create and project images that confirm or challenge the perceptions of viewers, many of whom may never come in contact with African-Americans in any meaningful way.
“It’s a big, big, deal. Words are a big deal,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. Over the years, Collinsworth, who played wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals for eight seasons, has developed a reputation as an astute and insightful commentator and also as one who is fair-minded.
That extends to the language he uses to describe black quarterbacks. Collinsworth is critical but also aware of history. “I think you have to be, a little bit,” he said earlier this week by phone. “I don’t make stuff up,” he added. “I’m not going to say somebody’s a smart quarterback if they’re not a smart quarterback. I don’t care if they’re black or white or green.
“I try to bring my own history and experience into this.”
Collinsworth points to three events, among many, that informed his approach to relationships and broadcasting.
One of his teammates in Cincinnati was Jeff Blake, the quarterback who played at East Carolina. When they discussed their respective high school recruitment, Blake told Collinsworth that while he was recruited by larger schools, they all wanted him to change positions. East Carolina was the only school that would let him play quarterback.
Collinsworth’s roommate one year in Cincinnati was linebacker Joe Kelly. Kelly told Collinsworth how at least once a week he was stopped by police while driving to his home in a fashionable Cincinnati neighborhood. Collinsworth couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘Didn’t you lose your mind?’ Didn’t you scream at the police?’ ”
Kelly explained that he rolled with the punches and went about his business.
Collinsworth recalled meeting tennis legend Arthur Ashe Jr. at Wimbledon, and somehow they discussed Ashe’s upbringing in segregated Virginia. Ashe broke several barriers, and Collinsworth wondered how he broke them: “Did you go in there and slam your fist?” he remembered asking. Ashe calmly explained that he accepted the slights and continued moving toward his goal.
As a white wide receiver in the NFL, Collinsworth got his own glimpse of what it was like to be stereotyped and pigeonholed. “Forever, everyone would describe me as a possession receiver,” he said, referring to the code word used to describe white receivers. Collinsworth actually had outstanding speed. As a high school sprinter in Florida, he was the Class 3A 100-yard dash champion.
Just as black quarterbacks were pigeonholed as “athletic,” the white wide receiver was pigeonholed as a “possession receiver.” “I was kind of like Joe Kelly: It got to where I’d say, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m a possession receiver,’ ” Collinsworth said. He even made self-depreciating jokes about his speed. “There was no use fighting.”
Being teammates with Blake and roommates with Kelly and having a conversation with Ashe informed how Collinsworth would deal with being boxed in by stereotypes.
“I’ll never understand what Arthur Ashe went through, or Jeff Blake, or Joe Kelly, but at least I’ve had the role reversal a little bit.” He added: “To some extent, and this is going to sound petty in comparison, at least I have some understanding of it as a white wide receiver.”
On Sunday, Mahomes faces veteran New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a game some see as a passing of the torch, one generation to another, one style of play to another.
“Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end?” Fox-play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said.
More likely, it’s the extension of a new beginning.
Will Brady be described as heroic, surgical, precise, while Mahomes is called nimble, gifted and athletic?
The discussion really isn’t about quarterbacks but about how we see each other and how African-Americans are perceived and valued.
The son of one of my former colleagues was arrested inside the Yale University Library because police did not believe he belonged there.
Two black men at Starbucks waiting for a friend were humiliated and confronted by police because a Starbucks employee believed they posed a risk.
“Stereotypes are bad for society in general, no matter what we’re talking about,” Ferrucci said.
This is not simply about broadcasters describing black men playing quarterback; it’s about defeating racism, one word at a time.